This gay climber planned to scale Mont Blanc to raise LGBT+ visibility. Instead, he is in lockdown

Thursday, 21 May 2020 14:35 GMT
Though his dreams may be on hold for now, Kyrgyz climber Dastan Kasmamytov still hopes to plant a rainbow flag on nine of the world's highest peaks - the 'Seven Summits'

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Dastan Kasmamytov planned to climb Mont Blanc next month in a bid to become the first Central Asian to scale the world's tallest summits. Instead, he is in lockdown with his family, who once took him to a magician to try to "cure" him of being gay.

The new coronavirus has put Kasmamytov's dream of planting a rainbow flag on nine of the world's highest peaks on hold for now. But he still hopes to summit the Franco-Italian mountain in August, for both LGBT+ visibility and his native Kyrgyzstan.

"I believe that it will be a great accomplishment for our small country," said Kasmamytov, 28, who moved to Germany in 2015 to study computer science after being physically attacked for speaking out about police blackmail of gay and bisexual men.

"If it's done by an openly gay person it would even crazier," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone in fluent, accented English.

American Cason Crane was the first openly gay climber to conquer the "Seven Summits" - the highest point on each continent - in 2013 at the age of 20, while Peruvian adventurer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado became the first lesbian to do so in 2018.

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Since 2018, Kasmamytov has climbed three peaks on his "Pink Summits" mission and plans to scale nine in total, to account for disputes over which are the tallest, finishing on the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest, in 2024.

Mount Elbrus, a 5,642-metre peak in Russia, was the first and Kasmamytov cried when he reached the top, after a six-hour interrogation by officials at the border that included questions about his family and sexual orientation.

"It was a very special moment, holding the flag in one of the most homophobic countries," said Kasmamytov, who followed Elbrus with Kosciusko in Australia and Kilimanjiro in Tanzania.

SACRED WATER

Kasmamytov, who had done lots of sport as a child, was introduced to climbing at an indoor rock climbing club in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, in his late teens. Around the same time, at the age of 18, he came out to his family.

This was no easy feat in the socially-conservative central Asian country where, despite gay sex being legal, LGBT+ groups have been attacked and few people are out to their families, according to research by human rights advocates.

"(My mother) asked, 'Are you a faggot?' and I could not say no. I just started to cry," he said in a Facebook video.

"I felt like I was a terrible immoral person. They were really proud of me and now I was basically threatening their honour."

Kasmamytov's mother, Zhyrgal, wanted to "heal" him with so-called "conversion therapy" to try to make him straight, a practice which has been widely condemned as ineffective and harmful to mental health.

First she went to a government psychiatric centre, where she was told being gay was not a psychological disorder. Then she took her son to a magician in the mountains in winter, where he was forced to read prayers in Arabic by candlelight.

"It was a surreal experience sitting in that freezing room, full of other people searching for treatment," Kasmamytov said, laughing as he recalled how several other patients, most of whom were alcoholics, shouted and writhed as if possessed.

"I felt really actually intimidated, scared and terrified. I felt like we were in a sect, a religious sect."

Afterwards, Zhyrgal hung a poster of the "ugly magician" on his wall to protect him and made him drink "sacred water" that she brought from a church at 6am every morning.

INNER PEACE

Kasmamytov said he did not blame his parents for his ordeal.

"I knew the whole context we were living in and I was actually afraid I would be kicked out, afraid I would be beaten up," he said.

Over time, his parents' attitudes softened, particularly when they realised that their actions were making him depressed. After two years, they came to accept that he was gay.

"I came to the point of inner peace and decided that my child is more important to me and he's a part of me," said Zhyrgal, from the Berlin apartment where the family have been in lockdown since March.

"How can I cut away this part? The life and the happiness of my child should come first," she said, in a joint video interview with Kasmamytov and his younger sister Daria, a feminist activist.

But life in Kyrgyzstan remained difficult, especially after Kasmamytov spoke out about police abuse of LGBT+ people at a 2014 press conference by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

In the furore that followed, the country's leading Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against same-sex relations and Kasmamytov and his fellow activists were physically attacked.

Burned out and depressed, Kasmamytov found sanctuary in the mountains.

"I expected there were going to be some level of backlash, but I never expected it would be so bad," he said, reflecting on an experience that was part of his motivation to leave Bishkek for Berlin.

"The mountains helped me to provide that safety, safety from being burned out, from the state, from the police as well. I could find that inner peace."

Those escapist mountaineering trips also helped Kasmamytov to connect with his Kygryz heritage.     

"Mountains are so important in my life, also in the history of Kyrgyzstan as well, because we are actually mountainous nomads," said Kasmamytov, who is running and cycling to keep fit as he waits for the coronavirus pandemic to end.

In Berlin, Kasmamytov said he and his younger sister Daria engage in the usual sibling squabbles, while Zhyrgal takes on the role of "judge" in their daily arguments.

"This is a very rare moment, when you can hug both of your children at the same time," his mother said in Russian, translated in turn by her children as she embraced them.

"I'm happy right now, I'm very proud of my parents," said Kasmamytov. "They accept me and love me as their son."

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